Review: Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden

“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” -Joseph Campbell

This book is haunting. It is touching. Captivating. Occasionally I would stop reading and realize that I had one hand on my chest, the fingernails digging into the soft, warm fabric of my sweater. Three Day Road is an unconventional tale of the First World War that follows the path of two Cree soldiers, Elijah and Xavier, in the trenches of France and Belgium.

Gregarious, confident and likeable is Elijah Weesageechak (which the army Anglicizes to Whiskeyjack). Xavier Bird is quieter, more cautious, and, though he is older, looks up to Elijah as his best friend and confidante. Xavier is the better hunter and shooter of the two, but during training, it is Elijah’s English that sets him apart from Xavier and puts him on the path to becoming one of the most dangerous snipers in the Canadian army. Xavier isn’t far behind, but lacks the killer instinct that Elijah seems to posses without hesitation. This tale is loosley based on the true story of Cree soldiers Francis Pegahmagabow and John Shiwak.

Running parallel to the story of Elijah and Xavier’s exploits in the war is the story of Niska, Xavier’s aunt. Niska tells the story of her people and their treatment of the windigo: those that have taken to cannibalism as a result of being stranded in the bush with no food. During these reminiscences, Niska attempts to paddle Xavier, a returned war hero, to safety. He floats in and out of a morphine-induced sleep as they near their home in the bush near Moose Factory in Northern Ontario.

Now, to the two hours traffic of our stage. The story is driven by Elijah’s need and Xavier’s desperate attempts to curb it. As hunters, they are yin and yang. They know where the other will step, know how to traverse the bush without a sound. They muck through the trenches filled with feet of water, mud and human remains in their moccasins Xavier made before they enlisted which they have received special permission to wear. Elijah is called out for the accuracy and excellence of his shot and he and Xavier are sent to built sniper nests and rack up as many kills as possible. Francis Pegahmagabow, of whom the story is modeled after, was said to have racked up a kill count of approximately 378 Germans. At first, Elijah is seen as a war hero and Xavier feels himself drifting further away from his friend as his lack of bravado, desire to kill and English skills make him almost invisible to his comrades. Then, Elijah discovers the the escape of the horrors of trench warfare that only morphine can bring. Xavier refuses to use it, but remains by Elijah’s side, helping him to keep his secret. Elijah takes to leaving the trenches in the middle of the night with wild fire in his eyes as he goes on raids alone. Xavier is left powerless as he waits sleeplessly for his friend to return. Elijah then meets a rogue group of French soldiers at an estaminet and is encouraged by them to adopt the old tradition of tracking his kills by collecting the scalps of his victims. Xavier watches, day by day, as his friend slips away into the grips of something greater than either of them, greater than war.

I loved this book. Boyden’s writing is superb. He writes about the First World War without being too flowery, too graphic. He tugs at your heartstrings without visibly pulling on them. He doesn’t hold back when describing the horrors of the war, yet it’s not impossible to read while eating some lunch. When I listed this book as my #FridayReads on my Twitter Feed, I was flooded with comments from readers (not just Canadians, I might add) who gushed over the book and told me it was one of their favourites. I agree. Yes, it was based on a true story, but regardless, I want to say that I found the story believable. There are some stories that you read where you find yourself rolling your eyes a bit and getting on board with certain story arcs. I didn’t find that in this book. In addition, the narration was well paced and didn’t seem disjointed, as often happens with more than one narrator who are both reminiscing and storytelling. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in historical fiction, Canadian history, accessible writing that’s still really, really good, and anyone who says “what happened at Vimy Ridge”? Though this book doesn’t cover the Battle of Vimy Ridge, it chronicles a lot of the Canadian involvement in WWI and if you don’t know what Vimy Ridge is, you don’t know enough. Learn more. Read this book. Also, might I add, the fact that this is a first novel is extremely impressive. Boyden, who wrote this novel at a very young age, seems to write with a voice that spans many generations. I will also take this time to commend him on his attention to detail from what I’m sure was painstaking research.

I’ll share my turn-downs with you in this book first, as I think they can showcase Boyden’s imagination, research and mastery of the English language.

1. “Do you want to know something, Auntie,” I say, cupping my hand and taking a small sip from the river. “So many dead men lay buried over there that if the bush grows back the trees will hold skulls in their branches.” I don’t even have to try and imagine what Xavier is describing here. Boyden has painted such a vivid, dark picture here that I can see it, almost as if I was there. I can also believe that in the nightmares of those soldiers, sleeping in their dirt bunks in the trenches, they saw these skulls hanging from branches. Skulls knocking together in the trees, mimicking the sound of gunfire – or was it simply gunfire? These soldiers bearing witness; never sure if they were dreaming or awake.

2. Elijah and Xavier are in Moose Factory, Ontario. Having escaped a forest fire they came upon in their canoe, they have arrived in the city to enlist. Before they enlist, Elijah has deemed it necessary to dress themselves like the Wemistikoshiw , or ‘White man’. Elijah has suggested they go to the tavern and drink, but Xavier is filled with trepidation. “And what of the fire?” I say. “What if it does come this way and burns down the town while we sit and drink?” “Can you imagine anything more glorious?” Elijah says. This exemplifies Elijah’s spirit so perfectly, and also feels wonderful to say out loud: “Can you imagine anything more glorious?”

3. This next paragraph made my eyes well up with tears as I know the feeling Xavier describes here all too well. They are at the estaminet in France, which Elijah has brought Xavier to as often as possible during their leave.
Twice I’ve seen a girl come in here, but she isn’t like the others. She’s shy like me and is thin with long hair that she wears on the top of her head. Elijah notices her too, and I feel a sharp sting when he sees me notice her and then boldly approaches her. They talk for a while, but I can’t make out what they say over the voice of this place. She smiles at him and I begin to feel very sad.
The last sentence just makes my heart ache thinking of Xavier being too shy to approach someone and having his charming, outgoing best friend be the one to do so. It’s simply written, yet so clear and human.

Reading this book made me think about my experience with the history of the First World War. In 2008, I traveled with my mother to Vimy Ridge. It would be wrong to call her a WWI historian, but she knows more about the war than your average Canadian. She had been to Vimy before, but had wanted to go to the tunnels again while we were in France. She’s read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks more times than I’m sure she’d care to admit, which is one of the reasons she got into this history to begin with. The book is about trench warfare, and the men who were chosen to dig tunnels in the First World War. This fascinates her. The lives of these men during the war and their poetry. Men not yet men, but referred to as such so one does not have to think of them as boys.

Here are some photos from our time at Vimy. (The last photo is taken at Thiepval.)

Walking on what France has deemed “Canadian Soil”, you can practically feel that the air is thicker with the history that radiates from the place. The British and Canadian forces created twelve tunnels, up to 1.2 kilometres in length, that were 10 metres deep below the battlefield. There were very few tourists when we were there and, astonishingly enough, we ran into my uncle’s wife’s sister and her husband who were visiting from Prince Edward Island. With those shivers already, the four of us descended into the tunnels. The coolness of the tunnel got under my light sweater as I inhaled the earthy, wet air. The walls of the tunnels, now covered partially with a vibrant, green mold, shimmered lightly as the light reflected off the gathering moisture on the rock. The tour guide was educated, professional, and she didn’t sound like she had given the tour 5 times already that day. She was passionate, interesting and gave us some eye-opening information about how the men lived in the tunnels. It seemed tight with the five of us walking in single file. To think of how many men died in the spot we were standing and how it was, at the same time, one of the greatest victories in Canadian military history is truly a humbling experience that I will never forget.

When I got back to Toronto and tried to tell others about my experience at Vimy, I found that there are an embarrassing number of Canadians who don’t know anything about the Battle of Vimy Ridge. When I was reading Three Day Road, I was reminded of this, and thought about how little I know of the Cree lifestyle, culture and involvement in any of the wars. I realize that you can’t know everything, and it’s important to share these stories and help make others aware of our history. It’s one of the reasons I’ve found it so important to read Canadian Literature – we live here, we’re the ones that are going to be responsible for passing on these stories. We should be proud of what our country has done.

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